To write this, I followed my nose through whole libraries (both online and off), hunting through 1000 years of history to produce a chunky tome that tries to set the record straight about the long tragi-comedy of relations between the French and all us English-speakers.
I'm not saying we're eternal enemies, just that we can't ignore our pasts. And that our past is studded with wonderful stories of betrayal, distrust, violence and all-too-rare attempts to be nice to each other. Starting with William the Conqueror (who, contrary to what the French might claim, wasn't French at all, and died fighting the Paris-based King of the Franks) and going right up to the horrendous diplomatic gaffes inflicted on recent French presidents, I have sifted through our common history for tellable tales, and kept only the juiciest nuggets. Can you have a juicy nugget? Well, I suppose a certain fastfood restaurant would say yes, but I meant the golden kind. How about: I kept only the goldenest historical nuggets. Goldenest? Is that a word? Sorry, I'm rambling. You know what, I’m going to let the book's introduction speak for itself – I think I explained it a bit more clearly there. Here goes:
One of the most frequent questions I get when doing readings and talks is: why is there such a love-hate relationship between the French and the Brits?
The love is easy to explain – despite what we might say in public, we find each other irresistibly sexy. The hate is more of a problem – for a start, it’s mistrust rather than hatred. But why is it even there, in these days of Entente Cordiale and European peace?
Like everyone else, I always suspected that the mistrust had something to do with 1066, Agincourt, Waterloo and all that, but I felt that most of our battles were too far in the past to have much effect on the present. So I decided to delve into that past and come up with a more accurate answer.
And having written this book, I finally understand where the never-ending tensions come from. The fact is that our history isn’t history at all. It’s here and now.
William Faulkner was talking about the Southern USA when he said that “the past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” But exactly the same thing can be said about the French and the all English-speakers – no matter what we try to do in the present, the past will always march up and slap us in the face.
To give the simplest of examples – go into the British Embassy in Paris, and what do you see in the first anteroom you enter? A grand portrait of the Duke of Wellington, the man who effectively ended the career of France’s greatest general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Essentially, a two-century-old defeat is brandished in the face of every French visitor to Britain’s diplomatic headquarters … in France’s own capital city.
It’s not tactless or provocative – relations couldn’t be better between the British Embassy and their French hosts – it’s simply there. Just as the battle between the sexes will never end (we hope), neither will the millennium-old rivalry between the French and anyone who happens to be born speaking English.
And the most interesting thing for me was that while researching this book, I found that our versions of the same events are like two completely different stories – the French see history through tricolour-tinted glasses and blame the Brits (and after about 1800, the Americans) for pretty well every misfortune that has ever befallen France. Sometimes they’re right – we have done some nasty things to the French in the past – but often they’re hilariously wrong, and I have tried to set the record straight.
I realize that any book that gives a balanced view of history is going to irritate French people a lot. So I’m really sorry, France, but the 1,000 years of being annoyed by les Anglo-Saxons aren’t over yet …
Et voilà, end of intro, start of book – I hope that makes you want to read more.